Member trips to Afghanistan ended safely. But unofficial travel can put others ‘at risk’

Members have also faced increased threats of violence during domestic travel

Former Sen. Norm Coleman boards a Capitol Police bus taking current and former senators to the National Cathedral for former Sen. John W. Warner’s funeral in June. Members traveling in their districts or abroad don’t always have police escorts and have sometimes faced violence.  (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Sen. Norm Coleman boards a Capitol Police bus taking current and former senators to the National Cathedral for former Sen. John W. Warner’s funeral in June. Members traveling in their districts or abroad don’t always have police escorts and have sometimes faced violence. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted September 7, 2021 at 4:06pm

Recent unauthorized trips (and an attempted trip) by members of Congress to Afghanistan as U.S. military forces and civilians withdrew from the country ended without incident, but a safe return from such journeys isn’t always assured. 

“Unauthorized or uncoordinated trips overseas are just dangerous in this day and age. You put yourself at risk, or family members who might be with you, if you’re trying that, and it makes it hard for host countries,” said Terrance Gainer, who retired as the Senate sergeant-at-arms in 2014 and was also at one time chief of Capitol Police. 

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, whose spokeswoman said last week that he “has been and is currently completely safe,” apparently tried twice to enter Afghanistan in as many weeks to rescue American citizens, The Washington Post reported. Mullin later said on Fox News that he was just trying to help. “It was just, what else do you do when you see a problem? How do you say no if you can be an asset?” the Oklahoma Republican said on Sept. 3.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi last month made clear that she didn’t support a trip to Afghanistan taken by Reps. Seth Moulton, D-Mass., and Peter Meijer, R-Mich., and that they were freelancing. 

Their trip or others by lawmakers to the region had the potential to take resources away from the effort to get Americans, coalition partners and Afghan supporters from Kabul, Pelosi said.

Unlike Moulton and Meijer, who are former members of the military who served in Iraq, Mullin is not a veteran. But to Gainer, it doesn’t matter what someone’s military background is. When a member of Congress surfaces in a conflict zone or a dangerous domestic situation, it compromises safety for everyone else. 

For a typical official trip taken by members of the House or Senate, the sergeant-at-arms would work with staff members in the speaker’s office or in the secretary of the Senate’s office to reach out to the military to get a plane or find transportation. Once that is secured, officials work with agencies to determine how many people plan to attend and coordinate local governments and law enforcement to make sure they know when the plane will land and that members are safe during their trip. 

Freelance trips to dangerous areas bring back memories of other lawmakers taking their international travel plans into their own hands. Not all were without incident. 

In 1954, Maine Republican Sen. Margaret Chase Smith set out on a world tour to assess the communist threat on her own and at her own expense, saying that she believed official “codels,” or congressional delegations, were managed too closely. The trip caught the attention of famed CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow, whose cameras were trained on her throughout the 23-country tour, and she served as a special correspondent. The press in an election year for her was an added bonus. 

On Nov. 18, 1978, Rep. Leo J. Ryan was shot dead along with four others as a group tried to escape the Jonestown commune built by cult leader Jim Jones. Rep. Jackie Speier, then a legislative counsel for Ryan, was shot five times and left for dead with others in her group on a remote airstrip in Guyana, South America. 

The Ryan congressional delegation had no military or State Department protection. It’s a grim example, but not the only one of a congressional trip that wasn’t well protected and escalated quickly.

A 2015 CRS report examining member international travel disclosures said enhanced reporting rules could improve transparency on who’s paying for the travel and where members are visiting, but could raise security concerns if patterns in international travel are easily available.

“This could increase the cost of travel to destinations that pose greater risks to Members of Congress or their staffs, or curtail such travel,” the report said. 

District violence

In more recent times, it’s not just international travel that can pose a threat. Domestic travel and the frequent public events required of members in their districts and other locales have sometimes turned violent. 

In 2011 Rep. Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., was gravely injured at a constituent meet-and-greet that left six dead, and in 2017 Rep. Steve Scalise, R-La., was left in critical condition after a shooting during a GOP congressional baseball team practice in Alexandria, Va. 

Jane L. Campbell, president and CEO of the United States Capitol Historical Society, said that during her time as chief of staff for then-Sen. Mary Landrieu, D-La., uniformed officers were invited to lead the pledge of allegiance to ensure a law enforcement presence at events. But security for individual members can vary with whether they’re in leadership roles or if threats have been made against them.

“There’s no uniformity in terms of what kind of security there is for members of Congress who are on travel, whether domestic or international,” Campbell said. 

These and other events have caused Capitol law enforcement to take threats against lawmakers even more seriously, because terrorists may see an event with an elected official as an opportunity to make a statement. 

“People somehow feel that’s the way to express their political opinion, by attacking members of Congress, and that is more prevalent than it’s been before,” she said. 

In the wake of the Jan. 6 insurrection, more work must be done to make sure members stay safe, Gainer said. 

“Now that they’re getting thousands of threats, it requires more coordination and more agents and that was one of the recommendations we made in the Honoré report,” he said. The report was compiled after a pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol by retired Army Lt. Gen. Russel L. Honoré and his task force, of which Gainer was a member. 

The report found that Capitol Police “were understaffed, insufficiently equipped, and inadequately trained to secure the Capitol and Members” when the violent mob stormed the building.

Making sure members of Congress are safe requires security officials to be informed of what’s about to happen, so they can make sure to anticipate what might happen, and not be forced to react after something has already happened. 

“The job of security people now, or when I was sitting in those chairs, is you actually think, what’s the worst-case scenario, what do I have to worry about?” Gainer said. 

He said it’s understandable that members of Congress like Mullin would want to help solve what they see as an injustice, but not going through the proper diplomatic channels can have dire and sometimes lethal consequences.  

“I get why the congressman is trying to sneak into the country because he's a swashbuckler and he’s going to be a hero, too,” Gainer said. “But in dangerous situations, whether it is overseas or showing up at some active shooter event in the United States, that’s just not the way to do it — you put other people at risk.”